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Monday, May 19, 2008

Film Review: Iron Man and Speed Racer

Iron Man (2008), Paramount

D: Jon Favreau

S: Robert Downey Jr., Terence Howard, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jeff Bridges

Speed Racer (2008), Warner Bros.

D: Andy and Larry Wachowski

S: Emile Hirsch, John Goodman, Christina Ricci, Susan Sarandon, Matthew Fox

It’s that time of the year once again, and the summer blockbusters have already hit the
cinemas. There are a number of films I want to watch this season, a circumstance that is the direct opposite of walking into a multiplex and realizing that there isn’t any movie I want to see.

Two of such blockbusters are Iron Man and Speed Racer. The former, a screen adaptation of a Marvel comic book series which my father thinks was most popular during his childhood and thusly, quite unknown to me and my sisters. The latter, also a screen adaptation, is a tribute to the well-loved Japanese animated series that was dubbed in English, therefore gaining a following in the United States and even here in the Philippines, at least for me and my sisters, via Cartoon Network at the turn of the century.

The Iron Man movie revolves around the change of heart of billionaire weapons manufacturer Tony Stark, played excellently by Robert Downey Jr. This change occurs due to an unfortunate experience that fortunately transforms the formerly alcoholic swinging bachelor into someone with a noble purpose in life. He is abducted by Afghan militants and is imprisoned in a cave with a fellow prisoner, Dr. Yinsen (Shaun Toub), who saves his life by installing some crude electronic device into his chest.

Speed Racer, on the other hand, centers on how the young hero, yes, Mr. Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch), fights for his principles in a racing industry that has just, in his eyes, changed and turned upside down. The movie chronicles the story of Speed and his family, including the tragic tale of his older brother and idol, Rex (Scott Porter).

Both films have Asian elements, with Speed Racer obviously having its Asian roots evident in the film. Korean pop star Rain plays the racer Taejo, whose father is involved in some fishy race-fixing scheme tied to a company stocks scheme. A funny segment of the film shows Spritle (Paulie Litt) and the chimpanzee Chim Chim (Kenzie and Willy) watching and imagining themselves in an Asian cartoon.

Asians are also represented in Iron Man through, unfortunately, the abductors who torture and hold Stark captive. Interestingly, most of the Asians in both Iron Man and Speed Racer are illustrated as belonging to the dark side, which should be uncomfortable to me as an Asian, until I realize that the “evil” Asians in both films are only “evil” by their association with the Caucasian villains of the films (Jeff Bridges as Obadiah and Roger Allam as Royalton). Thus, while some of the bad guys are indeed Asians, the roots of the evil in both films remain white.

Glenn Kenny wrote in Premiere that Speed Racer contains an “anti-capitalist” theme. This theme plays in how the Racers’ family-run racing team wins over the schemes of big time companies. In one scene, Allam woos Speed and his family, proposing to have them sponsored by Royalton by pretending that, in spite of being such a huge company, Royalton remains “independent” at heart.

Similarly, the Obadiah character in Iron Man may also serve as the anti-capitalist force by having him portrayed as an über-capitalistic man. While Stark is more hands-on in that he actually works and experiments to develop new technology for his company, Obadiah is focused more on the business side of running the company, working towards keeping it as successful and lucrative as it can be, even at the expense of any moral and patriotic considerations they may have.

Downey is surrounded by a good cast. Aside from Bridges, there is Terence Howard as Rhodey, Stark’s buddy in the military and Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper, Stark’s unfailing, indispensable assistant. At first glance, I thought the film had its casting all wrong. I didn’t think Downey fit into the Tobey Maguire-Brandon Routh category, although Stark is, after all, a different kind of superhero. Still, I was more accustomed to seeing Howard in a more dramatic role, I was surprised to see Paltrow in a supporting role and Bridges isn’t exactly the first person I think of when I say super villain. Then, I watched the movie and realized that, once you cast excellent actors, miscasting isn’t going to be much of a problem. The actors knew the respective characters really well and executed their roles comfortably.

As for Speed Racer, the physical resemblance of the characters to the cartoon originals is amazing. Who would’ve thought that Hirsch would look so much like Speed? For someone who used to watch the cartoons, this makes the show additionally enjoyable.

I thoroughly enjoyed Iron Man for several reasons, but the thing that I most liked about it was the kind of chemistry that went to on between Stark and Pepper. In an interview with Superhero Hype!, Paltrow explained that Jon Favreau, the film’s director who ”Hitchcocks” himself by appearing as Stark’s chauffeur Hogan, wanted the relationship between Tony and Pepper to be like the ones in ‘40s “screwball comedies.” The interaction between these two characters was reminiscent of Cary Grant or actually, even Bond and Lois Maxwell as Moneypenny. They certainly achieved their aim, and I appreciated it because it was a very sweet and charming way of creating the relationship—sadly a rarity nowadays.

Iron Man isn’t escapist in that it touches on the current conflicts in the Middle East and even condemnations of the evils of war. Stark’s moral development and growth is also a merit of the film. These high points have reflected well in the box office as Iron Man did incredibly well. This I attribute to my theory that, if Iron Man really is most popular among the baby boomers, then it definitely is going to make a lot of money since it is the baby boomers who hold most of the money. Even if we Gen-Yers would want to watch it, we would likely get our money from our baby boomer parents who will decide if we get to watch it or not.

Speed Racer, for me, is a mainly a treat for fans of the original series, mostly from Gen-X if I am not mistaken. I have heard several negative reviews of the film, and it’s sad yet quite understandable. Speed Racer may be suffering from the same thing that Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow suffered. These two films, I actually enjoyed, but both were not received well. The thing is, I think both films are, first and foremost, tributes. Sky Captain is a tribute to the science fiction of old. What Star Wars fan would not appreciate Jude Law and (again) Paltrow swooping into a docking station à la Han Solo and Princess Leia in Cloud City about to meet Lando Calrissian? Likewise, what Speed Racer fan would not appreciate Speed Racer jumping, practically flying out of the Mach 5 after winning a race and whipping his arm across into the air à la the classic pose of Speed in the cartoons? People from outside the fan circle will not appreciate these details, but the fans most probably will.

For those who also caught the “Mock 5” episode of Dexter’s Laboratory, which parodied the animation style of the original series, the Speed Racer film becomes more fun because there are sequences where the characters say so many things really fast. When Hirsch did the Speed Racer pose after one race, I squealed with delight like I did when I saw the opening credits of Superman Returns and heard “Can You Read My Mind?” in the score. Aside from the fan treats, the theme of a good man battling it out in a corrupt society and coming out triumphant is also high point of the film.

My reservations on these two films would mostly be on the “not-for-kids” parts which, apart from the fact that I personally do not like them, seem misplaced in films that are billed as family films. As a Marvel movie, Iron Man will attract kids. With the atmosphere that the visual effects designer John Gaeta described to the New York Times as “poptimistic” and the fact that it is based on a cartoon series, Speed Racer will also attract kids. Both films have mature elements (Speed Racer was rated PG-13 by the MTRCB), and I find those as low points and blemishes to otherwise pleasant and fun summer flicks.